The Choteau Friends of the Library are hosting a reception for Choteau artist Marci Wolff on Oct. 19 from 2-4 p.m. in the Alice Gleason room of the Choteau-Teton Public Library.
Several “Portraits of Compassion and Kindness” painted by Wolff will be on display, with most featuring Choteau residents. Some paintings will also be for sale.
Wolff, who graduated with a Master of Fine Arts degree from The Savannah College of Art and Design in June, created these portraits as part of her thesis project titled, “Painting and Mindful Meditation: Paths to Compassion.”
“I didn’t even realize that was going to be my thesis until the end,” said Wolff. “I was just working on past memory and meditating to relieve my own stress. Anything I meditated on would end up in a painting later, so I realized I needed to work with that.”
Wolff meditates on behalf of each subject in her portraits, following the Tibetan Buddhist practice of “tonglen,” which means giving and receiving. She also uses elements of Shamata, a single-point meditation practice she learned from a Tibetan Buddhist monk at the Namchak Foundation in Arlee.
“Tonglen is the meditation of compassion. It’s about breathing in pain, suffering and negativity and breathing out sparkly clean air filled with peace and positivity,” Wolff said.
The meditation practice begins with the self and then expands outward in circles to one’s loved ones, acquaintances, strangers and so on.
“When you’re meditating for someone, they call it ‘breathing’ for them. When I’m breathing for others, it can feel overwhelming at times, knowing all the grief and pain in the world. I breathed for the Syrian refugee children, and that was very impactful,” she said.
The final tier is breathing for one’s enemies.
“If I can breathe for people who annoy or offend me, I can come out a better person. With this, there’s even a bit of Judeo-Christian inspiration there, in loving one’s enemies,” Wolff explained. “The point isn’t to make me seem oh so great, but it’s just a way to convey that we are all connected to each other in our suffering.
After meditating, Wolff’s artistic process starts by taking a simple photograph of her subject. She uses her cell phone camera, so some photos come out better than others.
“The quality of the photo really determines how big or detailed I can make a painting. If the lighting isn’t right or it’s a bad photo, I can’t do as much with it. That’s the only thing that determines the size of the painting or how I paint it. I don’t want people to think the subjects in the bigger ones are somehow more important,” she explained.
Once the photo is taken, Wolff will do a few sketches. Then she may do a few color studies in watercolor or charcoal to see which colors work appropriately with the effect she’s trying to have. After that, the final pieces are all done with oil — either on paper mounted to board or on canvas.
Her project has personally affected Wolff in how she sees her neighbors and her community.
“The people I painted were people I came across every day, but never really engaged with. Before too long, I realized I was building these threads of community, and I cared more deeply about the people I passed on the street. We were all interconnected,” Wolff said.
In the future, Wolff plans to lead an art session in Choteau in the future, in which she will teach participants basic art and tonglen techniques.